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Author: Charlie Farrugia
Senior Collections Advisor
Today’s edition of The Age features a front page story about the restoration of the Rex Theatre in Charlton which was severely damaged in last year’s floods. The Theatre boasts an art deco design and was constructed in 1938.
On reading the article the thought that immediately occurred to me was to query whether we had a drawing of the theatre in either our series of public building files (VPRS 7882) or public building plans (VPRS 8044). According to the series descriptions for these series in our online catalogue, these records had been created by the Health Department and predecessor agencies. The series document largely defunct responsibilities under the Health Act regarding the regulation of certain health and safety standards in public buildings used for the purpose of education, entertainment, amusement and recreation. Public buildings in this context did not mean a government building.
Rather, it meant structures where reasonably large groups of people would congregate such as private hospitals, private schools, clubs, halls, hotels, sporting facilities such as grandstands, and theatres and cinemas. Before such structures could be built, extended or modified, the proposed plans and specifications were to be submitted to the Department for examination to determine minimum safety and health standards. Approval for such plans was required before construction could begin. The recordkeeping system for the files only spans the period 1962-1988, however, files from an older system extending back to around 1930 had been “top numbered” (i.e allocated new filing numbers) into it. I was therefore reasonably confident we held a plan because the article in The Age had provided enough key information. It had identified a structure that met the definition of a public building under the Health Act, a location and, most importantly, a date of construction.
1938 meant the file should exist within VPRS 7882 especially as it was still operating when the top numbering of files took place by 1962. It is unlikely that the files for any public buildings demolished by 1962 would have been top numbered into VPRS 7882 as there would not have been an administrative need for the Health Department to do so. The next issue was to determine if a plan existed within the plan series (VPRS 8044). Thanks to the great work of the PROV volunteers this is now a simple task. During 2011 they produced a new listing of this series which is available online identifying every plan by reference to the plan number, location and structure. Using the Search Within A Series option, I did not find a match. This was not necessarily a dispiriting development. As the online descriptions had made clear, the plan series only existed to enable storage of those plans that could not be stored on the file. This was a standard procedure in many registries through out Victoria and the world. I next went to the online searching tool for the VPRS 7882.
After entering the words ‘Charlton’ and ‘theatre’ in the relevant fields, I found that public building file 8655 for the Rex Theatre was located in VPRS 7882/P1, unit 1017. The file tells the story of the Health Department’s activities regarding the Rex Theatre between 1938 and 1987. Neatly folded inside the back cover is a colour sheet titled “Proposed Picture theatre, Charlton” containing a number of drawings, samples of which accompany this posting. Have you found interesting structures in these records? If so, please let us know.